LA CROSSE — Nestled among a few trees at a T-intersection of Sixth and Elm in La Crosse is the city’s library. Both the interior and exterior are not vastly different from when the small limestone structure was built in 1937, but how it is used probably would cause some alarm to the man it was named for.
The Barnard Library is much like other small community libraries today. Full bookshelves line the walls, visitors use computers to research on the internet or check email or copy documents on the photocopier, and children sit on the floor for story time.
It’s a far cry from the quiet and order imposed by the library’s eponymous director, Howard Barnard.
“People were scared of him,” said Jo Burkhart, the current library director.
Described in a November 1946 edition of the Rotarian as “Whitmanesque” with a flowing white beard, Barnard demanded silence in the library, regarding it as a place of study.
A few of the patrons of today’s library worked for Barnard, Burkhart said, and tell stories of how he would run a finger along the rows of shelved books to make sure they were all lined up perfectly.
Despite what might be considered his eccentricities, Barnard is considered one of the great educators in rural American history.
“Howard Barnard was a kindly, selfless fanatic who deliberately turned his back on wealth and comfort to teach unlettered cowboys and pioneer children for a salary never more than $67.50 per month,” is how Ralph Wallace described him in the Rotarian article, two years before Barnard’s death.
Lawrence Erbis, a member of the Rush County Historical Society, portrayed Barnard for the society’s 50th anniversary in 2013 and still dons a white beard and boots to take on the role occasionally. He told Barnard’s story for La Crosse third-graders recently.
Born in New York City in 1863, Barnard was the nephew of Henry Barnard, the first U.S. commissioner of education, and Frederick Barnard, president of Columbia University. Barnard spent much of his youth in the family library.
At the age of 18, he heeded the words of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley — “Go West, young man.”
After working briefly on the Erie Canal in New York, Barnard made his way west, walking most of the way. He met several families heading for the Santa Fe Trail. Barnard intended to travel with them, but failed to make a connection with them later in Missouri.
Barnard continued west, mostly by foot.
“By August 1884, there I was, ready to step over the line in Kansas,” Erbis, as Barnard, said.
He hopped freight trains until he ended up at Great Bend.
“That was the end of the line. No more rail from then on,” Erbis said. He set out on foot once again.
Barnard ended up in Rush Center and found work making molasses for sugar beet farmers. After the season was over, he set off on foot looking for more work, and one night took shelter in a haystack during a snowstorm. It might have been that night that his feet froze, causing permanent injury. Later in life, Barnard wore boots every day because of the damage to his feet.
He briefly went back to New York City, but by 1886 returned to Kansas, bringing as many books from his family library as he could carry. While working for a Rush County family, he would use those books to educate people, often just sitting under a tree in a field, farm workers and children gathering around him.
He eventually got a teaching certificate from the state and worked in area schools for 15 years. He had a desire to start his own school, but lacked the funds until he received an inheritance of $16,000 in 1905.
With the funds, Barnard started Entre Nous College, building a two-story school near McCracken on four acres he purchased for $289. Eventually he expanded that to 10 acres, and the grounds included a garden for agriculture experiments. There also were barns and stables for the school’s horse-drawn wagons he called “kid wagons” that were forerunners of school buses.
Entre Nous College essentially consolidated several of the area’s one-room country schoolhouses, and Barnard became known as “the grandfather of consolidation” in Kansas, Erbis said.
Its curriculum offered more than the country schools did, too.
Barnard hired a former military officer as his physical education director. Girls’ physical education was part of the curriculum and its sports teams.
“We had tennis, track, basketball, football. The curriculum was more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. We had geology, music, Latin and German,” Erbis said.
The building itself included amenities such as an auditorium, gas lamps, central heat and a telephone.
Barnard often would walk to Hays City to purchase new books, and sometimes would go without food for himself to pay for subscriptions to the New York Sun, Popular Science, National Geographic and other periodicals for his students.
By 1911, however, Barnard had expended all his money. He borrowed from banks, but in 1913, the school was closed and the property sold to cover his debts.
“When everything was paid off, the attorneys and creditors, I had $49.15 left,” Erbis said.
Barnard actually lived in the school building until it was torn down.
“I was basically penniless, ate very little and my health deteriorated,” Erbis said.
Area women’s groups came to his aid.
The bell from the school’s tower was saved and turned into a monument at the site of the school. It still can be seen today along Avenue E in Rush County, approximately 10 miles west of U.S. Highway 183.
In 1923, Barnard became librarian of La Crosse High School. The community library was built in 1937, part of the Works Progress Administration, from stone quarried near Sand Creek southeast of La Crosse. Barnard became director for the library that bore his name.
A small stove used to heat students’ lunches at Entre Nous College, along with a collection of Barnard’s books and personal and school artifacts, can be viewed at the library today.
Among them are Barnard’s rules of library etiquette, which included:
• Whispering corrupts good manners.
• Permission is necessary to speak to anyone in the library.
• Place the chair under the table when leaving.
• Use no ink in the library.
• When you walk in the library, be sure to clean your shoes.
Erbis, in character, told the La Crosse third-graders Barnard did have a cat that was allowed in the building.
“One day, my cat did an unkind thing on one of my books. I had to throw the cat out the door,” he said, making the children erupt in laughter.
“I usually wasn’t that mean. But temper got a hold of me that day. Eventually I let the cat back in.”
Barnard died in 1948 at the age of 83. He had intended to be buried on the grounds of Entre Nous, but the patrons of his community library saw to it he had a plot in the La Crosse cemetery. It wasn’t until recently, however, that his grave received a headstone, a granite marker denoting him as “Pioneer Educator and Librarian.”